By: Amanda Froelich,
Sources of sustainable energy continue to be pursued with little to no avail; while well-thought out strategies are presented with good intention, it seems there’s always a fatal flaw that is uncovered. Solar power, hydro-power, nuclear, and wind power have all been dragged through the mud to some extent; ‘traditional nuclear fission is too risky, hydro-power dams disrupt the environment, the sun doesn’t penetrate through the clouds, and winds aren’t consistent’ are just a few of the arguments against the sustainability alternatives.
However, could the answer to achieving 100% pollution-free sustainable energy lie outside of the Earth’s atmosphere? The quest for extra-terrestrial sources of energy has brought to light many intriguing ideas (such as wind turbines on Mars), but one of the most realistic and best answers to solving the energy crisis relies in using helium-3, an Isotope of Helium, which is used to fuel the billions of stars in the universe.
One has to wonder how the sun burns in a void with no oxygen; the answer is that the reaction is different from combustion which takes place in Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, a reaction called nuclear fusion occurs where by the intense gravity forces four hydrogen atoms to fuse into one atom of helium. The resulted product weighs much less than the four hydrogen atoms, therefore the missing mass becomes a lot of energy. We observe this extra energy as light and heat, our sun. This phenomenon lends insight into why helium-3 could be an excellent source of energy on our planet.
As opposed to nuclear fission which splits an atom’s nucleus in half and poses potential risk due to radiation, nuclear fusion combines nuceli to produce energy. Nuclear fusion has already been tested with the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, but both reactions give off the majority of their heat as radioactive neutrons, a cause of safety and pollution concern. Helium-3, on the other hand, is perfectly safe, with no pollution or radioactive waste given off.
Helium-3 is an isotope of the element Helium; it has two protons but only one neutron. When it is heated to very high temperatures and combined with deuterium, the reactions releases incredible amounts of energy. In fact, just 2.2 pounds (1 kilo) of helium-3 combined with 1.5 pounds of deuterium produces 19 megawatt-years of energy. Roughly 25 pounds of the components could power the United States for an entire year.
The problem, however, lies in the sourcing of helium-3. While the United States is the largest supplier of Helium at 78% from what can be extracted from minerals and tapped gas deposits, the element only accounts for 0.00052% of the Earth’s atmosphere and therefore is not very abundant on this planet. Being the second lightest element and the second most abundant in the universe (24% of the cosmos), the solution is to look outside of our planetary borders.
The moon, for example, is estimated to contain over 1 million tons of Helium; the energy stored in that much Helium is 10 times the amount of energy you’d find in all of the fossil fuels on Earth. If one put a cash value on it, the helium-3 would be worth $4 billion a ton in terms of its energy equivalent in oil.
That said, the remaining issues rely in the practicality of extracting the Helium and fine-tuning the fusion process. Current fusion reactors have yet to achieve the sustained high temperatures needed to produce electricity, and helium-3 would require a lot of refining because it exists in such low concentrations in the soil. Another issue to consider is if the damage of emissions from rockets launched is worth the confiscating of Helium from the moon.
A large amount of risk is being invested to provide more energy, when perhaps the first goal should be to eradicate the excess usage caused by consumerist society and a lack of education. Regardless, if sustainable methods to extract and fuse the plentiful element are realized, the outlook for Earth’s sustainable future holds another alternative of hope.